The Gambling Bill has exposed schisms in the Government. Its has also highlighted entrenched departmental characteristics. HM Treasury wants tax revenue; the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) wants urban renaissance; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wants tourism. Beyond Whitehall, gamblers want slot machines; local authorities want control; investors want rapid delivery of trading opportunity; and football clubs see casinos as must-have ‘bling’ alongside new stadia, hotels, restaurants, overseas stars and (occasionally) trophies.
Casino gaming is confined to licensed members’ clubs – membership is required 24 hours before the first bet can be placed. Applications for premises licences can be refused because of insufficient local demand. Casinos are restricted to certain permitted areas and gaming machine jackpots are strictly controlled.
The Gambling Bill’s provisions fall into two categories: modifying the regulatory framework and facilitating new forms of casino development. The bill proposes a new Gambling Commission and the abolition of the ‘demand’ test, the 24-hour rule and permitted areas designation. Alcohol will be permitted on gaming floors.
Casinos will be categorised according to size. Most will be either ‘small’ or ‘large’ and these will be unable to offer unlimited jackpot gaming machines. The third category is ‘regional’ or ‘resort’ casinos or, as The Sun would say, ‘Las Vegas-style’ casinos.
Regional casinos will require a minimum area exclusively for casino table games of 1,000sq meters; a minimum additional gambling area of 2,500sq meters; and a minimum non-gambling area of 1,500sq meters. Each will be permitted 25 gaming machines per gaming table (up to a maximum of 1,250), which will offer unlimited prize money. For an interim period they will be limited to eight nationwide. The selection criteria are unannounced, but seem certain to focus on regeneration and tourism credentials, regional self-determination and policy acceptability.
Planning permissions will be fundamental, especially with the Government committed to abolishing permitted development rights allowing D2 leisure developments to convert to casinos. The big-value hands will therefore be dealt in the planning system, many in public inquiries. Unfortunately, the pack has been shuffled by this year’s Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act and a few of the cards are missing. Planning authorities are grappling with a new ‘simplified’ multi-tier development plan system. They already struggle to meet central government targets, and lead-in times for public inquiries have doubled.
The scene is supposed to be set by regional spatial strategies, few of which are in place. Proposals are to conform to local development plans, even fewer of which are up to date. Brownfield sites are to be preferred and sequential tests are to apply. To overcome a policy vacuum at national level and paper over the cracks between government departments, a draft national casino policy is due in December. The planning gain system, intended to capture public benefits from the haul of new casinos, is in flux.
Nevertheless, the prizes are great. US, South Africa and Australian operators are vying with UK leisure groups to invest. Some players bombard regional development agencies and MPs with casino spam, while others wait quietly for an opening. The biggest questions for those of us advising are: how long before the real winners emerge?; where will they be?; and how many will lose shirts before the first regional casinos are opened?
The bill is being scrutinised in committee and a December announcement is expected concerning selection rules for the first eight big ones.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor fidgets, John Prescott glowers, Tessa Jowell flutters and both the Salvation Army and the Daily Mail prick consciences with Christmas images of roulette-induced penury.
Tim Pugh, planning and environment department co-head, Berwin Leighton Paisner